Talking Street Artistry with Guesswho


Editor’s Note: Active since 2012 (if her/his Facebook page is a sound indicator), anonymous Indian street artist Guesswho has taken the art world and social media by storm in recent months. Using graffiti as the preferred medium of expression, Guesswho’s unique use of iconic images reflects the impact of remix culture in society, and is a wry commentary on socio-political forces at work in a globalised world.

IPEye had a chance to chat with Guesswho on her/his work, on the symbiotic nature of art, copyright and how, depending on your perspective, street art may or may not be vandalism. Read on.

Apart from its accessibility value, was there any other reason why you chose to use graffiti as your chosen medium of expression?

It gives you a lot of freedom as a visual artist with practically very little restrictions. It is also a potential medium and must be explored, especially because we are living in a time where artistic freedom and freedom of expression itself is often being questioned or restricted in our country, either by state censorship or by moral and cultural policing outfits.


What, in your opinion, distinguishes street art from vandalism?

That depends on one’s perspective and on the definition of vandalism. Street art cannot be judged merely on its aesthetic merits. It also depends on how do we distinguish street art from street advertisements. How many people would consider advertising on the public realm as an intrusion into their private space? That leads to another basic question on ownership of public places. Who owns it? Is it owned by everyone?


Your style involves combining Western and Eastern images into your original creations, making new derivative works. Have you had any issues with copyright infringement over use of these images as “raw material”?

Art is not created in a vacuum. Essentially all art[s] [are] derivative and influence each other one way or the other. Artists rely on things they have seen in the past, other works they have experienced or techniques they have experimented with, that come together to inspire them toward to create something new. You are not really copying someone else’s work blindly here, but re-imagining [it] in different contexts and with different understanding. Though DaVinci was the first one to draw the Mona Lisa, many artists redrew it after him with individual understanding how they think the Mona Lisa should be. However the legal outcome, much as the appreciation of the pop art itself, may very well depend on the viewpoint of the beholder.
Regarding your question on infringement, the doctrine of fair use would apply to the situation here, as per my limited knowledge about copyright laws. Fair dealing of imageries for the purpose of criticism, parody or satire may not fall into infringement. Otherwise almost all works of Andy Warhol and other similar pop artists would have to be considered nothing more than infringement and dilution cloaked in the guise of art.


You also use images (like Colonel Sanders from KFC, Superman from DC Comics) that are trademarks reflecting brands in their own right. You have previously commented that the images you use are deliberately famous to make the art more accessible. To what extent (if at all) does the brand behind the logo affect the purpose of your artwork?

I did use popular imageries, but for a different purpose and in a very different context than the original. The image taken from the original material has been transformed by adding new expression or meaning and additional values (or the denial of it) [are] incorporated into the original by creating new aesthetics and new insights.
When a trademark transcends its identifying purpose and enters public discourse, it assumes a role outside the bounds of trademark law. I believe that in that aspect, it does not have the right to control public discourse whenever the public imbues a trademark with a meaning beyond its source-identifying function.

What would you say is Guesswho’s place in the public domain of copyright and artistic works? Are you a proponent or opponent of stricter copyright measures, and why or why not?

Copyright of street art is a complex issue, especially when it is done illegally and anonymously on public walls as it is in the case of Guesswho. To be honest, I don’t feel one way or the other about it. The fact that it is being done anonymously on public spaces makes it easy for people to capture it and own it. But does that really mean anybody can claim the ownership of the artworks and use it for their commercial benefits? I’m not very sure.
Images Source: Guesswho. Reprinted with permission.
Like, View or Tweet to Guesswho to keep up with more beautifully relevant street artwork.


About: Mekhala Chaubal

Mekhala is a graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School, Canada with an interest in all areas of intellectual property (IP) law in a transnational context, privacy rights, and the development of IP in emerging economies. She is currently immersed in learning about innovation, entrepreneurship and the finer points of patent, copyright and trade-mark law as IP Legal Assistant.

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